Prints Archive

The word on drawings!

 

Reading Drawings is our latest display in the Gilbert and Ildiko Butler Drawings Gallery. We asked curator Dr Rachel Hapoienu to tell us about the display and how it came about. 

The subject of inscriptions on drawings was an especially enticing one for me to tackle, as my role as the Drawings Cataloguer (IMAF Project) for The Courtauld Gallery requires me to examine every one of our over 7,000 drawings and meticulously record each inscription and mark. My initial list of potential objects for this display ran to a few hundred works, posing a serious challenge in how to narrow it down.

I knew I wanted to include a large section on signatures and names – these are the most common types of inscriptions, and though their frequency might make them seem a bit banal, for a cataloguer a signature is always exciting! However, this display urges caution in declaring a signature as genuine, because sometimes later owners added names of artists to the drawings they owned, and of course some forgers created fake signatures to deceive buyers into thinking their works were executed by a famous master.  One such drawing in this display, depicting a female nude, is a forgery in the manner of Rodin. The forger, known to scholars simply as ‘Hand B’, attempted to replicate both Rodin’s style and his signature. Closer inspection of the forger’s lines reveals that he applied pressure with his pencil too evenly throughout both the figure and the fake name, which is uncharacteristic of Rodin’s technique. This discrepancy combined with the figure’s unsophisticated anatomy and the prevalence of unnecessary lines helped to identify this work as a deliberate forgery.

Forgery in the manner of Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), Female nude, around 1917-1920

One drawing I knew I had to include is attributed to an artist in Raphael’s studio. The sheet is split in half, with text on the upper portion and below a somewhat puzzling scene of soldiers in a tent surrounding a bare-chested man drinking from a goblet. By comparing the imagery to paintings, prints and drawings with similar iconography, I determined the scene may be of ‘Alexander the Great and his physician’, showing the moment Alexander downs his medicine. Adding to the intriguing quality of this sheet is the text, which was written before the image was drawn. It lists the days of the week with corresponding food items, mainly bread and meat. The idea of keeping a ‘food diary’ is probably familiar to many of our visitors, and offers a charming parallel with the author of the inscription, who lived around 500 years ago. This sheet also helps evoke the atmosphere of a Renaissance workshop, where drawings were not considered prized works of art and every spare bit of paper was utilised.

 

Studio of Raphael (1483-1520), Alexander the Great drinking his medicine, around 1520s

I also wanted to highlight the different reasons artists might annotate their own works. Many of their notes were intended as instructions or explanations for an assistant or another artist, such as an engraver who was meant to transform the drawing into a print, or an architect who would use the drawing as a plan for constructing a building. Sometimes artists were trying so quickly to capture a scene out-of-doors that they would scribble notes to themselves on how to fill in the details once back in the relative calm of their studio.  In the current display, one of the most interesting methods of note-taking is demonstrated by a drawing of Cader Idris in Wales, by James Ward. In one three-month period Ward made over 500 landscape sketches, so he would use a rapid writing system called ‘shorthand’ to facilitate such productivity. In this strange-looking script, each symbol represents a word, and thus is a quicker method than using the conventional alphabet. Ward’s shorthand notes are mainly instructions to himself on what colour washes should be added to each area of the landscape.

James Ward (1769-1859), View of Cader Idris, Wales, 1802 or 1807

Another priority for me was to highlight drawings that have rarely, if ever, been on display before – The Courtauld has so many drawings that inevitably many never see the light of day. Of the twenty-three drawings on view, eight had previously never been exhibited, so a visit to Reading Drawings offers a rare opportunity to see some gems from our collection!

By Dr Rachel Hapoienu

 

Reading DrawingsOn display until 4 June 2017

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Kenneth Clark Travel Award Winner

On Tuesday we were thrilled to welcome Rosie Shackleton to The Courtauld Institute of Art’s galleries. Rosie, a sixth form student from Dixons Academy in Leeds, chose to visit The Courtauld after she was awarded the Kenneth Clark Travel Award during her participation in the ARTiculation Prize, a competition encouraging young people to speak publicly about art. Courtauld undergraduate student Annabelle Birchenough tells us about Rosie’s visit:

693a3064As a current Courtauld Student Ambassador who took part in ARTiculation in 2013, I was delighted to accompany Rosie during her visit. The day comprised of a number of fascinating behind the scenes insights into the workings of The Institute, including a visit to the Gilbert and Ildiko Butler Drawings Gallery, and Prints and Drawings Study Room.

First, we were fortunate to have Assistant Curator of Works on Paper, Dr Rachel Sloan talk us through the curation processes involved in her current drawings gallery display Regarding Trees, before taking us to the treasure trove that is The Courtauld Prints and Drawings Study Room. On learning that Rosie has a particular interest in Impressionism, Rachel pulled out a wonderful box of early Impressionist drawings and prints that Rosie really enjoyed getting up close to. The Programming Manager, Learning, Stephanie Christodoulou then talked Rosie through the general workings of the main gallery before we finished the day with a detailed walk around The Courtauld Gallery’s permanent collection, as well as the temporary display of Georgina Houghton’s work. By the end of the visit, Rosie told me she couldn’t have asked for more and summed the success of the day up as follows:

“I really enjoyed the visit. There were great insights into how a gallery is run, particularly on the paper and prints side of the institute, and I really loved the Van Gogh drawing we saw! The Impressionist gallery was just luscious and brilliant. I really loved the Georgia Houghton too – it was really interesting.”

Congratulations again Rosie, we hope to see you soon!

 

Bruegel in Black & White: A Tree-mendous Discovery

Displays offer not only the possibility to see masterpieces in a different light and a different context but in preparing them, curators and conservators carry out a lot of research on the works. Bruegel in Black & White: Three Grisailles Reunited was no exception, but the investigation yielded exceptional results.

Bruegel 3b

The techniques used to examine Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s three surviving paintings in grisaille ranged from xrays to infrared photography (which allows us to see any drawing below the paint) to analysis of the wood panels that Bruegel painted on.

We also used a scientific method called Dendrochronology which enables us to date wood based on the analysis of the patterns left by the tree (or growth) rings. By comparison with other data, it can date when the rings were formed to the exact calendar year and can thus estimate when the tree was cut down. In some areas of the world, it is possible to date wood back a few thousand years. This works particularly well with oak, which Bruegel favoured for his paintings.

Ian Tyers, a dendrochronology specialist, was able to ascertain that The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery was painted on a panel made from a 200-year old oak tree from the eastern Baltic region of Europe (present-day Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania). The tree was cut down after 1550, transformed into a standard size board and shipped to the Netherlands. This date corresponds well to the painting, which is signed and dated 1565. The tree was radially cut (that is to say across the centre of the trunk), as it was already well known at the time that this type of cut minimized warping and distortion.

The support of another grisaille in the exhibition, the stunning Death of the Virgin (National Trust, Upton House), was also analysed. There too, the wooden panel came from an oak tree in the eastern Baltic, cut down after 1553. This particular tree must have been especially majestic as tree-ring analysis indicates that it was already growing in 1228 and had a diameter of more than a metre when it was cut down. More strikingly, at least three panels made from that one tree were used by Bruegel to paint three works of identical size: The Death of the Virgin, Winter Landscape with Bird Trap (Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels) and The Courtauld’s own Landscape with the Flight into Egypt. Parts of this extraordinary Baltic oak thus live on at The Courtauld this spring. Come and see for yourself!

Bruegel in Black & White: Three Grisailles Reunited, until 8 May 2016

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Drawn from the Age of Dante: John Flaxman’s Illustrations of the Divine Comedy

Our Botticelli and Treasures from the Hamilton Collection exhibition is currently under way and the Prints and Drawings Study Room is also celebrating Dante’s Divine Comedy. We asked Alexander J. Noelle, Print Room Assistant, to tell us more:

As a doctoral student whose research focuses on the Italian Renaissance, I was thrilled when I heard that the Gallery was planning an exhibition of Botticelli’s exceptional drawings for Dante’s Divine Comedy, now on view. I thought that the arrival of these masterworks would provide an excellent opportunity to showcase related prints from the Courtauld’s collection of works on paper. In my role as a Print Room Assistant, I began searching through the 26,000 prints to select a small group for a temporary display in the Prints and Drawings Study Room. What I found was the first full set of widely distributed illustrations for Dante’s epic poem.

In 1792, British sculptor John Flaxman (1755 – 1826) designed 111 plates depicting the complete narrative of Dante’s journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. Although other artists had responded to the visually evocative text before Flaxman, he was the first to draw an illustration for every canto (an Italian term for the sections of a long poem) and, through print, disseminate his work to a wide audience. Flaxman was praised for his ability to reduce Dante’s complex language to simple symbolic icons that still managed to capture the spiritual essence of the story.

Flaxman Dante Title

Title Page: Compositions from the Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise, of Dante Alighieri, by John Flaxman, Sculptor. Tommaso Piroli (ca.1752-1824) after John Flaxman (1755-1826), 1793 (1807 edition), engraving.

The prints certainly look modern when compared to Botticelli’s depictions, yet when they were first published they were celebrated as belonging stylistically to the age of Dante himself. Flaxman was living in Rome when he drew the illustrations, actively studying artworks made by ‘primitive’ Medieval and Renaissance artists, and sometimes copying exact motifs into his illustrations. This influence, combined with the simple outline design, led Flaxman’s contemporaries to associate his drawings with Dante’s own era.

The sixteen prints on view in the Prints and Drawings Study Room correspond to specific drawings of the same canti by Botticelli in the Gallery. While it is unlikely that Flaxman saw Botticelli’s own illustrations, the comparisons query whether the viewer today can see the Renaissance influence in Flaxman’s prints.

Installation Shot

 

‘Drawn from the Age of Dante: John Flaxman’s Illustrations of the Divine Comedy’ is on view in the Prints and Drawings Study Room until 15 May. See opening times here.

There is also the opportunity to hear Alexander do a lunchtime talk in the Gallery on this exhibition at 1:15pm on Thursday 10 March. 

A Closer Look: Discovering the story of William Hogarth’s Before and After by Zoe Dostal

During the Print Room Open House ‘Storylines’, from 25-29 January, postgraduate Print Room Assistants are presenting artworks that explore the variety of methods artists use to tell a story. When preparing my own presentation for William Hogarth’s engravings Before and After, I additionally wanted to consider the ‘story’ of the physical object itself. Kate Edmondson, Conservator of Works on Paper for the Courtauld Gallery, guided my exploration of the objects’ histories from the fabrication of the paper to the application of the ink, through the hands of collectors and conservators to storage and display at The Courtauld.

Hogarth Before

William Hogarth (1697 – 1764), Before (1736), etching and engraving

Hogarth After

William Hogarth (1697 – 1764), After (1736), etching and engraving

Before and After are generally in very good condition, yet small irregularities or imperfections provide clues to the making of the prints. ‘Raking light’ is one of the conservator’s simplest and most useful tools. Simply shining light across the paper at a low angle reveals the texture of the paper and medium, details that are generally imperceptible to the naked eye. Examining Before in raking light reveals a raised vertical line extending from the top edge of the paper towards the center of the image. My first instinct was to assume that this was a tear or accidental fold. But Kate determined that because the ink is neither interrupted nor distorted, as it would be by a tear or fold, this mark is actually a natural crease resulting from the paper making process.

Vertical crease

Detail of vertical crease in normal reflected light

Vertical crease 2

Detail of raised vertical crease in normal raking light

A more noticeable blemish on Before is located just above the dog’s head, on the skirt of the female figure. This small, round, bare patch at first appears to be the result of damage. However, examining the mark under the stereomicroscope, Kate deduced that this imperfection occurred during the printing process. The outline of ink that delineates the bare spot tells the story of how the raised surface of an accretion, or an unknown foreign body, disrupted the application of the inked design and caused the ink to pool. (Imagine rainwater pooling around the bottom of a hill, creating a ring of water around the base.) It was likely that the accretion was sitting on the surface of the paper as it was pressed to the printing plate. Today the accretion is no longer there, leaving the small, un-inked circular patch.

Skirt

Close up detail of missing media lower centre of skirt

Furthermore, raking light reveals that After was previously folded in half across the middle. Kate explained that such a strong fold such as this is difficult to completely remove because paper retains an irrevocable ‘memory’ of such deformations. But one way to try and reduce its visual distraction is to apply a repair on the verso along the fold to “ease” out the noticeable ridge. In this case a Japanese paper (a strong, lightweight, translucent paper) was applied with conservation grade adhesive across the whole of the verso. The Japanese paper lining tells the most recent story of the prints, when they became part of The Courtauld’s collection and were prepared for display. The conservation efforts minimize the visibility of the imperfections of the print for the viewer, but are also completely reversible, allowing for the story of the object to continue evolving in the future.

After in normal

After in normal reflected light

After in raking

After in raking light revealing horizontal fold across the middle

To discover these stories and more of Hogarth’s Before and After, all are welcome to stop by the Print Room Open House on Wednesday 27 January from 1:30-5pm.

Print openings